Tess Hadley's The Past is What Patchett's Commonwealth Could Have Been!

THE PAST  (2015/16)
By Tessa Hadley
HarperCollins, 311 pages.
★★★ ½

Tessa Hadley's The Past invites comparisons to Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, as both novels deal with deeply dysfunctional families–the first set in England and the latter in the United States. Of the two, Ms. Hadley's book is far more interesting. That's ironic given that The Past deals with stereotypically English folks who think all manner of things but never dare to express them openly. It's doubly ironic in the sense that Patchett's book is sweeping in its coverage, but Hadley compresses her action into a single three-week timeframe. She succeeds where Patchett fails, however, because her dysfunctional family suggests themes that extend beyond personal narcissism. 

Not that there isn't plenty self-absorption on display within the Crane family at the center of Ms. Hadley's novel. It follows four siblings, partners, and hangers-on who gather for the family's yearly sojourn to their family homestead: Kington, a rambling cottage in the English countryside that they (fail to) maintain as a second home in the country several hours from London. It came to the family via their grandfather, the Rev. Grantham Fellowes, the imperious poet/intellectual who was once the village vicar of a now faded Victorian seaside resort.

Hadley's novel has been praised for its Chekov-like touches–especially its portrait of how small personal tremors elevate to what appear to protagonists to be earthquake proportions. The Past is a simple title, but it's also what they novel is about–in this case how the past is the uninvited and omnipresent guest at Kington. The Cranes are people who are so stuck in patterns they simultaneously replicate and dislike. In the very worst English style, they are people who think of changing their lives, opt to muddle through, and call it tradition. Harriet is a burnt-out activist working with asylum seekers and dressing like what she is: an ageing and lonely Tree Hugger. Alice is also fading–a failed actress but active drama queen whose forced optimism drives everyone crazy, as does her refusal to confront her age-inappropriate coquettishness. It is its own statement that she brings with her to Kington a Pakistani twenty-year old named Kasim. They're not lovers; he's the son of her ex-lover and no one can fathom why she brought him. (Kasim is also out of sorts, but he's not sure why he's there either!) Then there's Franny, with her two children: sweet, gullible Arthur, aged six; and eleven-year-old Ivy, a monstrous spoiled princess the likes of which you'd like to lose in the woods. Franny might be called the most "sensible" of the Cranes, except that she's married to rock n' roller Jeff, who is usually physically and emotionally absent. By default, well-heeled businessman Roland is seen as the most successful, though he comes with his third wife, Pilar–an exotic Argentine émigré–and Molly, his sixteen-year-old daughter to his first marriage. 

Do these sound like people with whom you'd like to hole up for three weeks? The only things they have in common is angst, a propensity for making a hash of their lives, an inability to make hard decisions, and an endless capacity to fret over everything! What are the odds of spending three weeks in idyllic tranquility? In what functions as an intercalary section, we also learn that the siblings' parents weren't very good at taking control of their lives either. All of this has the potential to be as frustrating as one of those interminable novels from one of the Brontes where Fate and Desire are no match for Duty, were it not for Hadley's clever use of metaphor.

Pilar and Kasim are outsiders and is often the case, it takes such people to shed light on personal foibles and customs that are simply old, not time-tested. They can see what the Cranes cannot: that Kington is a moldy pile of rubble that's as past its prime as the adjacent resort. In like fashion, Molly and Kasim heighten the clash between past and present and highlight how old patterns are crumbling like dry English biscuits in the face of technology and postmodernity. 

The Past isn't always gripping reading, but Hadley does a fine job of making us feel the weight of boredom, the inner workings of conflicted minds, and the capacity for self-deception and denial. Not much happens in these three weeks and that's the point–with lives in stasis, a nudge can feel like a right cross to the jaw, and a spontaneous expression of emotion or desire can become a crisis of epic proportions. I won't promise that you'll like the Cranes–though you might pity them–but I can say that they represent types that invite self-assessment and cultural analysis. Are our patterns what sustain us, or are they like Kington's loose wallpaper: held up by hope and temporary patches?

Rob Weir

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